Ah, patchouli… Deep, dark, earthy and present in plenty of Ambrée perfumes, patchouli’s still somewhat tainted with a hippie-dippy aura, even now. (It’s been called ‘the scent of the Swinging 60s’, because the essential oil was often worn neat on the skin of music-loving, party-loving – and sometimes drug-loving – youth.)
It’s always blown our minds that despite it’s earthiness, patchouli isn’t a wood, or a root: it’s actually a frilly green-leafed, purple-flowered member of the mint family, called Pogostemon patchouli.
Amazingly, from those fragile-looking leaves comes a sweet, spicy, smoky, cedar-y scent so powerful it has to be handled with care: patchouli is the most powerful of any plant-derived essence. But perfumers wouldn’t be without patchouli, for the richness that it gives to fragrances – and not just those heady Ambrées: patchouli makes its way into many chypre and powdery fragrances, swirling exotically alongside lavender, sandalwood, labdanum and bergamot, clove, clary sage, as well as vetiver. (It’s a little like vetiver, if you close your eyes.) Used alongside rose, it extends and ‘fixes’ rose’s sweetness.
The name, quite simply, comes from the old Tamil words patchai (‘green’) and ellai (‘leaf’). It originated in India, Malaysia and Indonesia and made its way to the Middle East via the exotic silk route: patchouli is a fantastic insect repellent, effective against flies and other bugs. (We’re going to try it out on our cashmere, and will report back.) Paisley shawls were traditionally layered with patchouli leaves in transit. Frenchwomen in the 19th Century swathed themselves in these patchouli-scented shawls against the cold – a fashion started by the Empress Eugenie – and patchouli became desirable, as a fragrance ingredient.
The quality of the oil can vary hugely. The very best stuff comes from the three or four top pairs of leaves, where the highest concentration of the fragrant oil is found. Once cut, they’re turned frequently to prevent them breaking down too quickly. Then the leaves are stripped and placed into woven baskets, where a process of fermentation takes place that releases the incomparable fragrance. Then the leaves are either CO2-extracted, or steam-distilled. It’s highly skilled work, and only a few distilleries produce patchouli of a high enough quality to please a VIP ‘nose’, or creator. On a blotter, meanwhile, a single drop of patchouli can last for months.
For many today people, it’s still a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, evoking plenty of prejudice. But we happen to adore it, and think even if you’re a naysayer: if you give some of these scents a try, you’ll likely develop a passion for patchouli…
In Bella Oudh there’s an exoticism of precious spices from Venice’s Trade Route, married with unashamedly plush flowers – all tempered by the mélange of sweet, earthy patchouli, slinky as a black velvet dress, and the freshly polished woods glowing warmly in the base. A fairytale of a fragrance, it’s impossible not to succumb to its colourful, overlapping dreaminess.
Tiziana Terenzi Bella Oudh £250 for 100ml eau de parfum
OR try a generous 15ml mini in our glorious collaboration of the Harvey Nichols & The Perfume Society Discovery Box (with TEN luxury size niche fragrances for only £45!)
Intriguingly smoky, velvety wine-dark petals unfurl in the heart of A Rose For… Revealing a sophisticated sprinkling of powdered iris root (orris) and a wisp of carnality with the rich seam of smouldering patchouli. The amber-y base swathes you in vanilla’s gossamer embrace that makes you feel is the way your skin should always smell.In hot weather it absolutely blooms, and in cold, you’ll want to cuddle closer.
Floris A Rose For… £160 for 100ml
OR try a sample in our Launches We Love Discovery Box £19 (£15 for VIP Club members) with thirteen fragrances and three beauty extras, and make this patchouli-infused rose most definitely for… you.
In Fortitude, we find ‘The art of magnetism and sensuality, for those with a bit of swagger’ – a green Swarovski crystal-eyed horned ram atop the magnificent cap, and a clue to perfumer Ilias Ermenidis’s uninhibited, rambunctious composition. Overtly addictive tobacco absolute segues to rich, sticky patchouli swirled with creamy, almond-like tonka beans – a distinctive blend that’s seriously hard to resist.
Robert Graham Fortitude
£260 for 200ml eau de parfum,
OR try a sample size, with two other Robert Graham fragrances and seven other niche scents in our Harvey Nichols & The Perfume Society Discovery Box for only £45 (scroll up for a picture, above).
L’Homme Idéal Cool wraps the original almond olfactory signature in three utterly refreshing accords. At first whoosh, experience the effervescence of bergamot, orange and a handful of mint leaves. In the heart, neroli makes a reappearance, with aquatic notes lapping alongside. And in the base – ensuring this has staying power on the skin – encounter vetiver and the dappled shade of that so-welcome patchouli.
£56 for 50ml eau de toilette
Here’s proof that patchouli can throw off its deep, dark and sometimes dark past to be reinvented as something sheer, summery and fresh. Unexpected bedfellows of pear, Bourbon pepper, jasmine and white musk – as well as more expected notes of bergamot in the top, guaiac wood in the soft base, offer further proof of perfumer Nathalie Lorson’s talent for reinventing notes, the better to delight and surprise our noses.
£175 for 125ml eau de parfum
Whichever of these fragrances you seek out, we urge you to try them on your skin and cast aside those ‘hippy’ preconceptions about patchouli. Truly, so many fragrances have patchouli in them that we bet many you already love contain the ingredient somewhere in the mix!
By Suzy Nightingale